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A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A.

A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A.

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A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A.

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Nov 11, 2016


Originally published in 1956, this book is a full account of General Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891), a career U.S. Army officer who served with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was one of the most senior general officers—second only to General Robert E. Lee—in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

Although heartily disliked by Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who often criticized him for a lack of aggressiveness and took every opportunity to sully his opponent’s name, General Johnston’s patriotic devotion to the Southern cause prevented him from resigning, and he rose to gain enormous respect from his major opponents for his actions during a number of campaigns—including General Ulysses S. Grant and Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, who became close friends with Johnston in subsequent years.

A leading text for Civil War enthusiasts.

Illustrated with 6 detailed maps.
Nov 11, 2016

Über den Autor

DR. GILBERT EATON GOVAN (April 28, 1892 - July 1978) was a prominent local historian, editor, writer and librarian. Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1892, he graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1911 and received his Doctor of Letters from the Tennessee Wesleyan College in 1959. He wrote book reviews for various local publications, including the Chattanooga Times, and joined the library of the University of Chattanooga in 1934, where he served until 1962. He was the Associate Editor for the Sewanee Review from 1914-1946. His works include The Chattanooga Country 1540-1951: From Tomahawks to Tennessee Valley Authority (1952), which describes the experiences of the people of the Chattanooga region in the light of local, state and national events, and two books co-authored with Dr. Jams W. Livingood, University of Chattanooga, 60 Years (1947) and A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A. (1956). He was also the co-editor of The Haskell Memoirs (1969) and contributor to many professional journals. Dr. Govan died in 1978 aged 86. DR. JAMES W. LIVINGOOD (July 5, 1910 - April 3, 2005) was a noted Civil War historian and author of many books and articles on local history. Born in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, he spent his youth in southeastern Pennsylvania. He graduated from Gettysburg College in 1934 and received a Ph.D. in history in 1937 from Princeton University. He was an instructor in history at Princeton University and subsequently a faculty member at the University of Chattanooga from 1937-1975. He served there as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1937-1966 and dean of the University of Chattanooga from 1966-1969. Dr. Livingood was a Guerry Professor of History, the highest award for faculty achievement at the University of Chattanooga. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 94.

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A Different Valor - Dr. Gilbert E. Govan

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Text originally published in 1956 under the same title.

© Pickle Partners Publishing 2016, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Publisher’s Note

Although in most cases we have retained the Author’s original spelling and grammar to authentically reproduce the work of the Author and the original intent of such material, some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit.

We have also made every effort to include all maps and illustrations of the original edition the limitations of formatting do not allow of including larger maps, we will upload as many of these maps as possible.










































The authors acknowledge with thanks the permission graciously granted to them to quote material from books, periodicals and letters, as follows:

From A Southern Girl in ‘61, by Louise Wigfall Wright. Copyrighted 1905 by Doubleday & Co., Inc.

From three letters from Joseph E. Johnston and eight letters from Louis T. Wigfall, reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

From A Diary from Dixie, by Mary Boykin Chesnut. Copyright 1905, by D. Appleton & Co. Reprinted by permission of the publishers, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.

From A Diary from Dixie, by Mary Boykin Chesnut (1949), ed. by Ben Ames Williams, Houghton Mifflin Co.

From General Kirby Smith, by A. H. Noll (1907), University Press of Sewanee, Tenn.

From Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General, by W. M. Polk (1915), Longmans, Green & Co., Inc.

From General Edmund Kirby Smith, C.S.A., by J. H. Parks (1954), and With Beauregard in Mexico, by P. G. T. Beauregard (1956), Louisiana State University Press.

From The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens and Howell Cobb, ed. by U. B. Phillips, The Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911.

From Yours Till Death: Civil War Letters of John W. Cotton (1951), and The Civil War Diary of General Josiah Gorgas (1947), University of Alabama Press.

From Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: Letters, Papers and Speeches, ed. by Dunbar Rowland (1923), Department of Archives and History, State of Mississippi.

From A Son’s Recollections of His Father, by W. W. Mackall (1930), E. P. Dutton and Co.

From The Railroads of the Confederacy, by R. C. Black III (1952); Two Soldiers: The Campaign Diaries of Thomas J. Key, C.S.A., and Robert J. Campbell, U.S.A., by W. A. Cate (1938); I Rode with Stonewall, by H. K. Douglas (1940); Stephen R. Mallory: Confederate Navy Chief, by J. T. Durkin (1954); James Longstreet, by H. J. Eckenrode and B. Conrad (1936); Joseph E. Brown and the Confederacy, by L. B. Hill (1939); and Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg, by J. C. Pemberton (1942); University of North Carolina Press.


The Virginia Theater

First Manassas

The Peninsula

Seven Pines and Fair Oaks

The Western Theater

Vicksburg-Jackson Campaign

Dalton-Atlanta Campaign, First Phase

Dalton-Atlanta Campaign, Second Phase

The Last Campaign


On Monday morning April 22, 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston, Quartermaster General of the United States Army, walked briskly along familiar Washington streets. His manner concealed the strain he had suffered for the past few days just as his pace denied his fifty-four years. Many of the thoroughfares along which he passed had a strange deserted appearance, some shops were closed and houses vacant, but the soldier didn’t notice his surroundings as he made his way to the office of the Secretary of War. In his pocket he carried a letter which was the most important one he had ever written, and he was intent on its early delivery.

In the privacy of his home he had pondered long before making his decision. On Friday he knew definitely that his native state of Virginia had reacted to the guns of Fort Sumter by seceding from the Union. The next day he penned his letter, but the gravity of its contents along with unfinished official business preoccupied his entire weekend. Meanwhile, the city had been feverish with fear and tension as residents realized they were virtually ringed by rebellion, and guests departed before an effort might be made to capture the capitol.

Before entering the office of the Secretary, Johnston was joined by the Adjutant General who had agreed to accompany him. Simon Cameron had been in office for such a short time that he was scarcely accustomed to the formal salutes of the visitors who soon stood erectly before him. Johnston handed him the letter which the Secretary read carefully.

Sir: With feelings of deep regret I respectfully tender the resignation of my commission in the army of the United States. The feelings which impel me to this act are, I believe, understood by the Honorable Secretary of War. I hope that long service, with some labor, hardship, danger, and loss of blood, may give me claim to ask the early consideration of this communication.

Most respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston, Quartermaster General.{1}

The Secretary was not surprised by the content of the letter. Strangely enough the administration thought there was nothing unusual in such resignations. Just two days before, Colonel Robert E. Lee had taken that step. Now, another of the most experienced and highly considered officers presented his. With all these things in mind Secretary Cameron expressed his sincere regret that Johnston thought it necessary and requested the Adjutant General prepare the proper orders immediately.

Joseph E. Johnston was the grandson of Peter Johnston, who emigrated from Scotland in 1727 to Virginia. A successful merchant, the elder Johnston moved from his first location on the James River to the Piedmont section of the colony shortly after the French and Indian War. His younger son, also named Peter, when only seventeen joined the legion of Light-Horse Harry Lee for the campaign in the Carolinas and served with it during the rest of the Revolution with such distinction that he became a favorite of his commander. This association laid the foundation for a friendship between the Johnston and Lee families which became even closer with the sons of the two Revolutionary soldiers.

In 1788 the younger Peter Johnston married Mary Wood, a niece of the fiery Virginia patriot, Patrick Henry, and the two made their home at the family farm in Prince Edward County, which Peter inherited at the death of his father. He developed an interest in politics and was a member of the State Assembly for thirteen terms, twice being chosen speaker of the House of Delegates. Prominent in the debates in which the issues of States’ rights first occurred, he stood with the majority in denying the Federal government the authority claimed in the Alien and Sedition Laws. A few years later he served on the commission which settled the boundary dispute between Tennessee and Virginia, and in 1811 he became a judge of the Virginia General Court.

The birth of the eighth son of Peter and Mary Johnston occurred February 3, 1807, at Cherry Grove. They gave him the name Joseph Eggleston, for the captain under whom Peter served in the Revolution. When the boy was four years old, the family moved to Panicello—the name of their new home near Abingdon, a location more convenient for Peter to serve the south-west Virginia circuit. There the young Virginian grew up, playing typical games with friends about the countryside. Judge Johnston was an ardent huntsman and his sons naturally followed his interest. A number of the veterans of the Battle of King’s Mountain lived in the area and excited the youthful interest of the boys by stories of their adventures. Emulating these heroes, the boys organized themselves into armies with young Joe as one of the leaders. With such a background of outdoor activity he became a fine horseman and a good marksman. It contributed also to a hardy constitution which enabled him to withstand the rigors of military campaigns and to recover from the number of wounds which he received as a soldier.

Joe did not grow up a young savage, running wild about the neighborhood. His father had the family’s traditional interest in education and his mother was a cultured woman as capable of instructing her children in the classics and inspiring them with a love of reading and learning as she was of managing her large household. On cold nights the family gathered around the fire to listen as one of the older brothers read. It was then that Joe first made his acquaintance with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for which he retained an affection through all his life.

Mrs. Johnston gave the boy his earliest teaching, after which he attended the Abingdon Academy, which his father had helped to establish some years before. He did good work there and showed interest in the classics particularly. Even so his inclination continued to be toward the military. His father early recognized this trait and consequently gave him the sword he had carried through the Revolution. Through a political friend Judge Johnston worked to secure Joe an appointment to West Point, which President Adams made February 21, 1825, when Joseph was eighteen years old. In the roster of cadets from Virginia the name of Robert E. Lee, the son of Judge Johnston’s Revolutionary leader, immediately precedes that of Joseph.

In June of that year the two young Virginians successfully passed the examinations to become members of an entering class of 105 cadets. Although Lee was slightly older the two soon became fast friends. Years later Johnston wrote of this relationship:

We had the same intimate associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while his correctness of demeanor and language and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that everyone acknowledged in his heart. He was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect and sense of his superiority.{2}

In the four years of Johnston’s experience at West Point he was associated with a number of cadets who played a part also in the great trial of the Confederacy. Three of them—Albert Sidney Johnston, as well as Lee and Joseph—were among the first five nominations as full generals. Two were in Richmond as heads of bureaus—Abraham C. Myers as Quartermaster General and L. B. Northrop as Commissary General. Of the others, Leonidas Polk and Theophilus H. Holmes held commissions as lieutenant generals. In all, twelve achieved the rank of brigadier general or above. Although some of them won temporary prominence in the early months of the war, none of the cadets attending West Point the same four years as Johnston reached permanent positions of importance in the Federal Army in the Confederate War.

In addition to those who achieved military prominence in the Confederacy a cadet from Mississippi in the class of 1828 became its president. During their period together at West Point Johnston and Jefferson Davis were but casual acquaintances. The occasionally encountered story that the two had an altercation over a girl cannot be substantiated from a contemporary source and seems a complete fabrication. The Colonel, as his intimates called Johnston, and Lee did not join in the escapades which more than once created trouble for Davis with the authorities.{3}

Johnston had to work against one major handicap in order to maintain his scholastic average. For a period of time an eye affection totally prohibited any night study, but neither this trouble nor the Spartan existence the cadets led prevented him from maintaining his early interest in books. French, astronomy, military history and biography were his favorite subjects and continued to be through his whole life. On July 1, 1829, when he graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Fourth Artillery, he ranked thirteenth in a class of forty-six, while his friend Lee stood second.

His first assignment was to garrison duty at Fort Columbus, New York. For the next seven years he served at posts up and down the Atlantic coast and in some of the final phases of the removal of eastern Indians. Two of his assignments forecast the threatening clouds which were gathering for the future. One was at Fort Monroe at the time of the Nat Turner slave uprising, and the other at Charleston Harbor during the Nullification crisis.{4}

The experience at Fort Monroe was a happy one. The trouble among the slaves developed no serious proportions and he found Lee stationed there. The two immediately resumed their West Point intimacy and enjoyed the social activities of the garrison together. But the second of these assignments gave the appearance of being crucial. Under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification in a bold stand to assert States’ rights. Johnston was among the troops whom the national government sent quickly to the scene to reinforce the garrison at Charleston. At the same time three of his brothers, who lived in Columbia, were drilling with the state’s minutemen, while another brother in the United States Congress was a vigorous supporter of the States’ rights position.

When the South Carolina difficulties subsided, Johnston was reassigned to Fort Monroe, where Lee was still stationed. In one letter to a mutual friend Lee remarked that The Colonel was in some danger of being caught by a pair of black eyes, but the affair was apparently of only passing duration. Early in 1834 the artillery school was broken up and the officers and batteries ordered to different stations. But Lee and Johnston soon found themselves together again in Washington, with Lee as assistant to the Chief of Engineers and Johnston on topographical duty. Johnston lived at Mrs. Ulrich’s boarding-house, where a number of prominent political and military men resided. When duty prevented Lee from returning to his home in Arlington, he usually joined their mess.{5}

Though he was still officially assigned to duty with the Topographical Engineers an outbreak of the Seminole Indians in Florida took Lieutenant Johnston to that area. Major-General Winfield Scott, who commanded the troops, selected Johnston as one of his aides. It was not the young officer’s first experience with Indian difficulties, as he was among the troops sent to the Black Hawk War, although he saw no action, and for a time in 1833-1834, was stationed in the Creek Nation.

The Florida theater was one of the wildest and least known sections of the American frontier. The Seminoles were expert guerrilla fighters and had the advantage of swamp and forest tangle, which concealed their movements and camps. The climate also handicapped the troops, who were limited to operations in the winter months.

Nothing noteworthy was accomplished in the campaign, which was late in starting and resulted in no important engagement. When in July Scott was recalled, a storm of protest, official and public, consequently swept the country and led to a court of inquiry. Johnston had been close to Scott and is mentioned in the general’s testimony. The inquiry was an unusual experience for the younger man, and in it he gained firsthand knowledge of the type of dissension which could break about the head of any army leader.

General Thomas S. Jesup, who succeeded Scott in Florida, was more successful, and with the surrender to him in the spring of 1837 of a number of the prominent Indian leaders, the war seemed to be over. Although gratified by his promotion to first lieutenant in July 1836, Johnston felt that with the end of the war he should resign. The department accepted his resignation May 31, 1837, whereupon he entered the profession of civil engineering. In September, though, hostilities again broke out in Florida, and he immediately volunteered his services.

Secretary of War Poinsett appointed him Adjutant and Topographical Engineer, without military rank, with a heterogeneous party of civilians, soldiers and sailors under Lieutenant L. M. Powell of the Navy. Under orders they explored the coasts and rivers of South Florida in co-operation with the Army to recommend sites for depots and forts. On January 15, 1838, the small detachment of which Johnston was a part encountered a band of Indians near the head of the Jupiter inlet of the Indian River. In the ensuing engagement every officer received incapacitating wounds. When the commander fell, a contemporary account reads, Mr. Johnson [sic] took command....; and the coolness, courage, and judgment he displayed at the most critical and trying emergency was the theme of praise with everyone who beheld him. In this engagement, Johnston did not escape unscathed. His clothing was pocked with bullet holes, and he carried a scar on his forehead from a slight wound for the rest of his life.{6}

This second experience in Florida reawakened his military ambition, and he secured his reappointment in the Army as a first lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers on July 7, 1838. On the same day he received the rank of brevet captain for gallantry on several occasions in the war against the Florida Indians. Because he was out of service for so short a time, and possibly for his performance in emergency, he lost none of his seniority as an officer.

With all the variety of interesting assignments this period of his life had greatest importance for the ambitious engineering officer because of its personal aspects. While engaged in coastal survey he lost his heart to Lydia McLane of Baltimore. He had known her brother, Robert, also a West Point graduate, in the Florida war, and the two served together as engineers along the Canadian border. The result of their association was lifelong, devoted friendship and the meeting of Joseph and Lydia. The McLanes were a prominent family of Delaware. The father of Robert and Lydia, Louis McLane, had served in both houses of Congress, as minister to England, and in Jackson’s Cabinet. In 1837 he became president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and moved to Baltimore, where the family lived when Joseph courted Lydia. They were married there July 10, 1845.

Lydia was never noted as a beauty, but she fascinated both men and women by her graceful charm and delightful, endearing wit. It was a happy marriage, with the two brought closer together by being childless. In the first years that void was somewhat filled by an orphan nephew of Joseph, Preston Johnston, who had but recently graduated from West Point. In the series of letters he wrote to this beloved nephew, for whom he described his feeling as that of a father and brother mixed, Johnston revealed himself far more frankly than he usually did. He advised the younger man while at the military academy on the choice of profession, both within the Army and without, should peace prove a block to promotion. He counseled on studies and on development in other ways: Read the Greek authors in English, & if you have time the Latins in the original.{7}

In this period of purely engineering duty for Johnston, war between the United States and Mexico precipitated him again into military action. When he heard of this new development, he applied for active service. Quickly, orders came for him to go to the Brazos, a few miles to the north of the point where the Rio Grande enters the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the places where ships and men met to prepare for the movement on Veracruz.

Here, Johnston found himself once more with Captain Lee, and they occupied the same cabin on the general’s ship as it made its way down the coast. The expedition arrived at Veracruz on March 5 and by nightfall a vast fleet of around seventy ships anchored in the harbor. The next day, Scott with his general officers and technical staffs reconnoitered the coast close by to seek a landing place. In doing so they came under fire from the batteries of a fort, which led to criticism from Lieutenant George Gordon Meade: This operation I considered very foolish; for, having on board all the general officers of the army, one shot, hitting the vessel and disabling it, would have left us a floating target to the enemy, and might have been the means of breaking the expedition. Such a fortuitous catastrophe might have had a great effect upon future military history, as in the party were Lee, Johnston, Beauregard, G. W. Smith, McClellan and Meade.{8}

The leaders determined upon Sacrificio, a few miles down the coast, as the landing place. Across the water the town lay, surrounded by walls and crowned by an irregular skyline of church domes and castle towers. Offshore the collection of vessels defied description.

In late afternoon a signal gun started the first wave of craft ashore. As the men splashed onto the beach and pushed for the dunes beyond, the boats returned to the ships for a second party. By ten o’clock that night about 10,000 men were on Mexican soil.

Scott selected April 8 as the day for the advance to begin. Mexico City was the ultimate objective, but between Veracruz and that point lay much difficult country and the gathering armies of Santa Anna. The day after the invasion began Johnston transferred from the Topographical Engineers to a regiment of voltigeurs, troops who were trained as expert skirmishers and in Scott’s army wore gray uniforms, instead of the traditional blue. As lieutenant colonel, he led his regiment on a reconnaissance well in advance of the army as it moved into the mountains over the road Cortez had followed more than 300 years before. Johnston’s determination to secure as accurate information as possible about the works defending the pass through the mountain of Cerro Gordo led him to venture too close, with the result that he was twice wounded by musket fire.

Incapacitated by his wounds he spent the next week in a spacious reed house, where a fellow Virginian, Dabney H. Maury, wounded also at Cerro Gordo, furnished comradeship. But an acquaintance of Maury, who requested that he be moved to the same house, soon created an unpleasant situation.

The partitions of the rooms were of reeds, wattled together, so that conversations could be heard from one room to the other. John Phoenix Derby was an incessant talker and uttered a stream of coarse wit, to the great disgust of Joe Johnston, who endured it in silence, till one day he heard Derby order his servant to capture a kid out of a flock of goats passing our door, when he broke out, If you dare to do that, I’ll have you court-martialed and cashiered or shot!

After Scott had cleared Santa Anna out of the way and established possession of the town of Jalapa, he had the wounded men brought there by litter. It was a lovely little town, on the slope of the mountain, looking down toward the sea, some ninety miles away. Maury continued to visit Johnston, whose nephew, Preston Johnston, then a lieutenant of artillery, cared for him. The army in this period remained at the town of Puebla, while its leaders tried to arrange peace with the Mexicans. When the negotiations failed Scott resumed the march toward the capital city.{9}

Johnston, who had recovered from his wounds, resumed his place with his regiment in time to take part in the series of engagements at Padierna, Contreras and Churubusco on August 19-20, just outside of Mexico City. In one of these attacks his nephew was killed. Lee, who had been standing close by the young artilleryman when he fell, met Johnston early the next morning. The latter had just heard of his nephew’s death. Both men recorded the meeting. Lee said that Johnston’s frame [was] shrunk and shivered in agony. Johnston always remembered the feeling Lee displayed. After the war of 1861-1865, he wrote:

I saw strong evidence of the sympathy of his nature the morning after the first engagement of our troops in the Valley of Mexico. I had lost a cherished relative in that action, known to General Lee only as my relative. Meeting me, he suddenly saw in my face the effect of that loss, burst into tears, and expressed his deep sympathy as tenderly in words as his lovely wife would have done.{10}

But a few actions remained before the occupation of Mexico City. The first, Molino Del Rey, occurred on September 8, and the second and more important, the storming of Chapultepec, five days later. Johnston led his voltigeurs with distinction in both. In his report General Gideon J. Pillow, the division commander, referred to the work of the very gallant and accomplished Lieutenant-Colonel Johnston who received three wounds, but they were all slight, and did not at all arrest his daring and onward movements. For his gallant and meritorious conduct, he received the rank of brevet colonel. General Scott is reported to have said, Johnston is a great soldier, but he has an unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in nearly every engagement.{11}

The Mexican capital city fell to the Americans on September 14. From that day on Johnston’s duties consisted of routine matters, except when he took charge of the parties bringing supplies and replacement troops over the guerrilla-infested road from Veracruz. In this period of comparative quiet he joined with the other officers in organizing the Aztec Club, to perpetuate the memories of their Mexican service. This society was a bond between men who later fought on opposite sides in fratricidal war. Some of them after 1865 attempted to use it as a means to re-establish old friendships.{12}

Johnston’s regiment was mustered out of service in the summer of 1848. As a consequence there was some doubt about his status, but a special act by Congress, July 19, 1848, reinstated him in his rank as a captain in the Topographical Engineers.

In the early years after the close of the Mexican War Johnston surveyed boundaries and worked on the improvement of rivers. On one of these assignments in Texas he was again associated with Maury. In traveling through an extraordinary canyon Maury asked his friend how he explained the power of that little stream to make a way for itself through the great mountain barrier, expecting some profound geological solution. The reply was, I presume the Power that could make the stream could make a way for the stream to pass, sir. This incident not only contains an implication of a steadfast religious belief but also, in Maury’s expectation of a profound geological solution, evidence of Johnston’s intellectual interest which was known throughout the Army.{13}

Johnston’s career took a new direction in 1855 when he transferred from the Topographical Engineers to the Cavalry. Because of the territorial expansion of the country and a new wave of westward migration, which disturbed the Indians of the Plains, Congress increased the size of the Army by two regiments of cavalry and two of infantry. When Johnston learned of the new plans, he asked Adjutant General Samuel Cooper for consideration for promotion. Johnston’s distinguished record in the Mexican War and his quarter of a century of service won him a commission as lieutenant colonel of the First Cavalry, of which E. V. Sumner was colonel. At the same time, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee became, respectively, colonel and lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry.{14}

After the Mexican War, because of their different assignments, Johnston and Lee rather lost touch with each other, and according to Johnston grew more formal in their relationship.{15} But Joe found spirits of kindred interest in a group of younger officers. They were all West Pointers with whom on one duty or another he had been in friendly association. Closest of them, apparently, was George B. McClellan, who was nineteen years younger, and whom he addressed as Beloved Mc. Johnston’s letters to him are frank and intimate, and display the playful humor which he used with those close to him. We are just fairly settled, he wrote from Jefferson Barracks. ‘The Madame’ has exhausted the pleasures of fixing up—& I am in hourly fear of a taking up of carpets & moving of furniture—for the sake of renewing the enjoyment of fixing.

When McClellan was on a tour of Europe as a member of a commission to observe latest military developments, Johnston wrote: Had your musings on the subject of female Sardinians & assimilation of allowances anything to do with the determination to hurry to Constantinople? He requested that the traveler perform certain errands for him. If you meet with a good sword for fighting with, get it for me, he wrote, and he asked that good books on cavalry tactics, except for those written in Russian or German, be sent to him.

A common professional interest runs consistently through the letters. Both Johnston and McClellan were intent upon the improvement of the cavalry service and equipment. When McClellan returned from his observation tour in Europe, Johnston asked that he stay in Washington long enough to influence the improvement of the service. The old infantry notion exists here, he wrote, that to make a decent appearance on dress parade is the only object in instruction. The men were not even taught to ride, he complained. Fancy 120 boobies who never straddled a horse, starting on an expedition of nearly two thousand miles—with the chance of getting into an occasional skirmish with the best horsemen in the world.

From his point of view there were other limitations on that expedition in addition to the poorly prepared soldiers. He found no interesting people in the party:

...but on the contrary I had such an infliction for one month as never was imposed upon Christian man. An infernal member of Congress, because the getter up of the appropriation for running this line, took it into his head that he had a claim on the party employed upon it—thinking, probably, that we were all beholden to him for offices. Such an impudent bore never before came out of Yankeedom. Of course, I had him in my tent. Not to do things by halves he brought a nephew with him.{16}

McClellan had tendered his resignation from the service some months earlier, and the Secretary of War accepted it, effective January 15, 1857. Johnston expressed keen disappointment as soon as he heard the news. In a letter, which was written from Jefferson Barracks January 2, he lamented his young friend’s decision.

It has overturned a great many castles-in-the-air on the subject of professional daily talks—reading—fencing—marches & camp fire talks—chases of Buffalo wolves & Indians—there is no one left in the regiment or army to take your place. I wish I was young enough to resign too.{17}

The positive way that Johnston expressed himself about needed reforms and his resentment over the limitations placed upon securing them by old fogyism did not endear him to his more conservative colleagues, one of whom accused him of injurious and malicious practice.{18} This and the isolation of the frontier posts caused a paucity of acceptable social relationships. Consequently the Johnstons welcomed a transfer to the nation’s capital in 1858. Mrs. Johnston was extremely pleased. Washington was close to her home in Baltimore. Both offered opportunities for the play of her natural social interest, and the prominence of her family, particularly that of her father, opened every door to her. She and two close friends of equal vivacity attracted wide attention. In Washington, before I knew any of them except by sight, Mrs. James Chesnut, the famed Confederate diarist, recorded, Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Emory and Mrs. Johnston were always together, inseparable friends; and the trio were pointed out as the cleverest women in the United States.{19}

While on detached duty at Washington Johnston served on a board of cavalry officers which met for the purpose of selecting uniform equipment for their branch of the service. Among other recommendations, they decided upon McClellan’s design for a saddle, which Johnston actively supported. Even this success and greater opportunity for cultural interests afforded by Washington did not still Johnston’s criticism. Old Fogyism is in the ascendant, he wrote McClellan.{20} Nor did his ambition abate. This last had been noted as early as 1846 by his friend Lee, who wrote to a classmate: Joe Johnston is playing Ajt. Gen’l in Florida to his heart’s content. His plan is good, he is working for promotion. I hope he will succeed. When Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who was a cousin by marriage of Johnston, brought the latter to Washington for several important assignments, Lee again spoke of Johnston’s fortunes, this time as affected by favoritism. He complained that in proportion to his [Johnston’s] services he has been advanced beyond anyone in the army....{21}

One phase, which may be related to Johnston’s ambition, offers a mystery. Beginning in 1857, letters passed among Johnston, McClellan, Gustavus W. Smith, and possibly others of the younger group of officers, with whom Johnston had established close friendship, about some activity in Latin America. The time was close to that of the Walker filibustering expedition, but though there are some references to interest in Cuba and other areas, it is apparent that this group had eyes on Mexico. Relations between that country and the United States, despite the victory of the latter in the war of ten years before, remained in a complicated state, caused by turmoil in Mexican domestic politics and unabated desire of the Americans for further concessions.

In 1859 when Mexico was again beset by civil war, Johnston made an official visit to Veracruz. He wrote McClellan about it, saying that the object of his trip was then unknown, even to him. While there, however, he had some faint hope of founding a Spanish castle upon the basis of last year. I shall write to you from Vera Cruz whatever I can learn from party leaders & conditions of affairs generally. There is another interesting juxtaposition of events here to cloud further the historical vision. Robert McLane, Lydia Johnston’s brother, reached Vera Cruz on April 1 as minister to Mexico from the United States, with power to recognize or not the newly established Juarez regime. One week later Johnston wrote his letter to McClellan from Vera Cruz. Yet neither Johnston nor McLane ever said anything about his brother-in-law in relation to this visit.

Johnston’s chief content in his letters to McClellan was about the project they had previously discussed. He wrote:

I am already convinced that there is no chance for anything like our schemes of last year. The leaders, both civil and military, are too jealous of us to adopt any such course—they had rather run the risk of being overthrown by the opposite party of their countrymen, than that of being supplanted in the control of their own party by us...Our castles in the air, my dear Mc, are blown away. You’ll have to consent to becoming a rich civilian, instead of member of a small but select party of maintainers of human liberty. There is at present no escape from Civil Engineering for you in this direction. Apropos of that profession, what was it you once wrote me of railroad making in this country? I should like vastly to join you in making a few $1000 in a short time—leave of absence could now be had without difficulty, & there is no military service of any interest at present—nor pleasant garrison life.

Though McLane remained in Vera Cruz and continued his efforts to secure concessions for the United States, the plan of Johnston and his friends, our respectable quartette, as he termed them, had to be given up. So Johnston wrote to his beloved Mc, while on his way home, before the end of the month. In the letter he revealed the reason for his trip and expressed a hope for the future.

I didn’t tell you the ostensible object of my going to Mexico because it was a very small one. To me, it served merely as an excuse. It was to look at some military routes which our dept, wanted to get the use of & right to protect. I am going back to Washington in the hope that some better scheme may be gotten up for my employment in that country, & no scheme of the kind will be worth much to one that doesn’t embrace the four.{22}

Shortly after Johnston returned to the national capital, he received an assignment to go to New Mexico as acting inspecting general. While in the West he also resumed his old service for a short time as Topographical Engineer. Officially he was still on detached service at Washington, when Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup died June 10, 1860. Jesup was a fellow Virginian under whom Johnston had served in the Seminole War. Jesup’s chief service, though, was as head of the Quartermaster Department, a position which he held for all the years after 1818. Upon his death, Secretary of War Floyd asked Major-General Scott, the commanding officer of the Army, to suggest a successor. Scott sought safety in numbers and recommended four candidates for the much sought office: Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee and Charles F. Smith.

There accounts begin to conflict. Robert M. Hughes, Johnston’s great-nephew and biographer, says that the selection narrowed down to the two Johnstons, who were not related. Jefferson Davis, then chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, supported A. S. Johnston, and Floyd, J. E. Johnston. Davis, however, in a letter written in 1878, says that his support won the appointment for J. E. Johnston. The nomination, he claimed, met serious opposition and...all my power and influence were required to prevent its rejection. But the Senate record shows that the vote on confirmation, which was by the wide margin of 31 to 3, came on June 28, 1860, the day after the committee presented its report. The comparative ease of the victory evidenced by these facts appears to refute Davis’ claim.{23}

In his new position Johnston’s rank was that of brigadier general, staff. When his friends heard of the appointment they hastened to congratulate him. Lee wrote, with a magnanimous interest, in view of the fact that this promotion elevated Johnston for the first time above him in rank:

My dear General: I am delighted at accosting you by your present title, and feel my heart exult within me at your high position. I hope the old State may always be able to furnish worthy successors to the first chief of your new department; and that in your administration the country and army will have cause to rejoice that it has fallen upon you. Please present my cordial congratulations to Mrs. J., and say that I fear, now that she will have you constantly with her, she will never want to see me again. May happiness and prosperity always attend you....{24}

To G. W. Smith and Mansfield Lovell, two of his younger intimates, Johnston wrote an acknowledgment of their congratulations in the customary spirit of his correspondence with members of that group. I have received with great satisfaction your ‘hearty congratulations at my success!’ Why it should gratify me I can’t say. For what you tell me was as well-known before as after reading your letter. Apparently with reference to their onetime Mexican plans, he said, Filibustees are doing better, I think, than Filibustering. Then in an aside to Smith, he adds the cryptic note, I’ll tell Davis nothing about Wood d—m him. (D—m Wood, you understand). This effort to distinguish between Davis and Wood would seem to imply that Johnston feared his friends would incorrectly associate his d—m (this is, incidentally, the strongest word used by Johnston in his correspondence and is rarely found). It is possible that the feeling between these two men, Johnston and Davis, which was to have such a grave effect upon the history of the Confederacy, had developed by this time.{25}

The office of the Quartermaster General was in the War Department building, a brick structure which stood close by the White House and near the Johnston home on H Street. Forty officers administered the department under Johnston, the duties being to insure an ample and efficient system of supply, to give the utmost facility and effect to the improvements and operations of the Army, and to enforce a strict accountability on the part of all officers and agents charged with monies and supplies. These responsibilities brought Johnston into an era of interest for certain Southern leaders who contemplated secession. As the crisis grew between the sections, especially after the election of Abraham Lincoln, both he and Floyd received requests from officials for the Southern states for assistance in the purchase of materials of war. This was not so unwarranted as it might appear. At the time the administration of President Buchanan had taken no positive position on the issues. Secession, many people believed, was a constitutional right which would not lead to war. The provision of means of defense for the states did not carry the implication of treachery which afterward came to be attributed to it. Johnston, inasmuch as munitions fell within the province of the Ordnance office, had no direct connection with such sales. However, on one occasion, he endorsed the filling of the request of the Governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown, for two knapsacks, $5.56; two haversacks 78 cents; and two canteens and straps, 92 cents. These things, he said, could be furnished with no inconvenience to the department.{26}

War was not inevitable in the minds of many participants in the events of the period. On December 11, the Senate passed a resolution which called for economies in the military establishment. When the Secretary of War asked Johnston what suggestions he had for the Quartermaster’s department, he wrote, As our troops are now stationed and employed, the estimate for the next fiscal year made in this office includes, I think, nothing which can be dispensed with or reduced. Matters though, continued to move with increased rapidity. On December 20, South Carolina seceded, to be followed by other states of the Deep South. Despite all this and the resignation of fellow officers and civilian employees of the government Johnston remained aloof.{27}

On March 15, 1861, Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker of the newly established Confederate States of America notified Johnston of his appointment as a brigadier general. No reply to the offer is on record, so it is not known whether or not he received it. Although no definite date can be given to it, sometime in this period General Scott, in addition to his better known appeal to Lee, attempted to persuade Johnston not to join the Confederacy. Scott was also a Virginian by birth, but his long service in the Army held him faithful to the Union. This interview was reported by Mrs. Johnston to Mrs. Chesnut.

General Scott also spoke to Mrs. Johnston. Get him to stay with us. We will never disturb him in any way. My husband cannot stay in an army which is about to invade his native country. Then let him leave our army, but do not let him join theirs. She answered: This is all very well, but how is Joe Johnston to live? He has no private fortune, or no profession but that of arms.{28}

The convention which considered the question of an Ordinance of Secession for Virginia met at Richmond February 13, and proceeded slowly to debate the issues. Delegations arrived from the states which had seceded and attempted to persuade the Virginians to follow their example. The sentiment, though, was divided. As late as April 4 a resolution to offer to the people of the state an ordinance to secede was defeated 88 to 45. The news of Fort Sumter, where Southern troops fired upon a Federal garrison on April 12, created great excitement in Richmond. When, two days later, President Lincoln sent his call for troops to the governors, the issue was decided. Governor Letcher interpreted it as the inauguration of war against the South. The convention followed the trend of the times and passed the ordinance, which the people were to vote upon May 23.

The Virginians in Washington, whether proponents of secession or not, watched anxiously the proceedings of the Richmond convention. On April 16 that body went into secret session and in consequence issued no immediate official comment upon its action. By the nineteenth Washington newspaper accounts left no doubt what the result of its deliberation had been. Informed observers, particularly those in positions of authority, realized that the issue was decided in the Old Dominion, even though the vote of the people was necessary to ratify the ordinance. The geographical position of Virginia with relation to the national capital made it imperative that defensive measures be not delayed. The convention recommended to Governor Letcher that volunteers be sought for the state’s defense, particularly among the Virginians who were serving as officers in the Army and Navy of the United States. The governor immediately appointed a committee led by Judge John Robertson of one of the state circuit courts to visit Washington and call upon such prominent officers as Scott, Lee and Johnston.

Like most American military leaders Johnston was never an active participant in politics but observed these developments with careful interest. When the news came of the action of the Virginia convention he felt bound by it. His wife remained unconvinced of the wisdom of his decision, which for her meant leaving...home & family & all, and she particularly distrusted Jefferson Davis: ...he hates you, he has power & he will ruin you, she told her husband. But Johnston remained adamant, replying to her, He can’t, I don’t care, my country, and on the next day, April 20, wrote his resignation. He used the week end to get the affairs of his office in order, and when Judge Robertson called to see him on Sunday he refused to discuss the idea of serving in the Virginia forces while holding a commission from the United States. Informally, he assured Governor Letcher’s emissary that his sword would never be drawn against his native state. The next day, April 22, he left home for his official visit to Secretary of War Cameron, carrying his resignation from the United States Army.{29}


On Tuesday morning, April 23, the Johnstons left Washington for Richmond. When they closed the door upon their home, they not only severed many happy associations but they left behind all their property except for a few clothes they carried and his personal arms. On their shelves remained his precious books, and in their places still sat the bric-a-brac and other mementos Lydia Johnston had collected. Under his arm, as they proceeded to Alexandria to take the train south, the General held tightly his most precious physical possession, his father’s Revolutionary sword.

The trip from Washington to Richmond in 1861 was a long one under the best of conditions, but to the Johnstons it seemed interminable. Accidents extended the slow schedule, and it was not until the sun first showed itself above the hilly horizon of Richmond on Thursday morning April 25 that the two weary travelers detrained. They had missed the great excitement of the celebration of Virginia’s secession the preceding Friday, and of the fear which raised its head on Sunday, Pawnee Sunday as the Richmonders called it. On that day reports rapidly circulated that the Pawnee, a Federal sloop of war, was on its way up the James River to bombard the city. By the time the Johnstons arrived, such thrilling matters had subsided, although still the subject of conversation on every hand.

Robert E. Lee had resigned from the United States Army April 20 and arrived in Richmond four days later. Governor Letcher commissioned him a major general and made him commander-in-chief of the Virginia military and naval forces. As soon as Johnston reached Richmond, he called upon Lee, who recommended that Letcher make him a major general. The governor issued the commission at once, whereupon Lee assigned his old friend the duty of organizing and instructing the troops who were already gathering in and around Richmond.

Major-General Johnston entered upon his duties vigorously. He was fifty-four years old, but carried himself erect and was capable of great physical and mental activity. His hair had grayed with his years and had receded to accentuate his naturally high forehead. His somewhat florid complexion contrasted with the gray of his eyes and was almost lost in the side whiskers, which he habitually wore, and to which he at times added a mustache and tuft of beard. Slightly built, he was well proportioned, weighing about 150 pounds, and being, according to various observers, between five feet, seven inches and five feet, nine inches in height. One of his associates said of him that while his grave handsome face, & bright eye, telling of intellectual power and cultivation, were frequently lighted up by a flashing, sunny smile, which betrayed, in spite of an habitual expression of firmness & austerity, a genial nature & a ready appreciation of humor. He did everything with a will, and disliked to be beaten even at a game of billiards.

Reticent to an extreme, he remained aloof, generally, although he easily won the confidence of his associates, most of whom were devoted to him. Johnston has the qualities which attract men to him, James Chesnut, Jr., said to a group of friends in Columbia. That is a gift of the Gods. He was calm and deliberate, spoke in a low tone and was very courteous, yet positive in command, brave and impetuous in action. Disciplined in his taste and habits, with a fine mind and a retentive memory, he had the reputation among his fellow professionals of being the best-read soldier in America and an excellent strategist.

However, like any other man he had his weaknesses. At times he was moody, and one of his close associates, who admired him greatly, said he was critical, controversial and sometimes irritable by nature... As was true of most Southerners of his station, he was highly sensitive about personal honor and dignity.

Within two weeks of his arrival in Richmond, Johnston was startled by the action of the Virginia government which reduced his rank from that of major general to brigadier general, because of the belief that public policy required the appointment of only one man to the higher rank. Lee, because of his earlier arrival, was left in that place, but he and Johnston were shortly invited to come to Montgomery by the Confederate government, which wished to secure information about the situation in Virginia. Lee replied that he was too busy and Johnston was ill. But in an effort to secure coordination, President Davis appointed Lee to the command of the Confederate troops in Virginia on May 10, although at the time he held only his rank as an officer of the state troops.

Johnston had more and more come to realize that the war would be directed not by the separate states but by the united government. As a consequence, when he recovered, he departed for Montgomery. Exactly when he left Richmond or arrived in Montgomery is not recorded, but he was in that city on May 15.{30}

In his conferences with government officials Johnston renewed some old acquaintanceships and made some new ones. The most important of them was Jefferson Davis. Then fifty-three years old, slender, tall, Davis suffered frequently from illness. Generally courteous, he had an imperious, positive manner. Consultation with him was likely to be more of an exposition of his views than an effort

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